The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa

Stilt fishermen in Sri LankaPhoto:
Image: Mark Panszky

It is early in the morning, around 5:30 am, and the sun is about to rise. Though a cool pre-monsoon breeze is blowing, the sun will be beating down mercilessly by midday. The stilt fishermen of Kathaluwa have already assumed their lofty positions, balancing two metres above the coral reef. The catch of the day will determine if there will be food on the table tonight or not.

The fishermen sit on a cross bar called a petta tied to a vertical pole planted into the coral reef. They hold the stilt with one hand while fishing with a rod or line using the other. They’re hoping to catch spotted herrings (koraburuwa) and small mackerels (bolla), which are stored in a plastic bag tied around their waist or the pole. The poles are 3-4 m long and driven about half a metre into the reef, so the fishermen sit at a height of about 2 m.

A group of stilt fishermen sitting on the petta:
Stilt fishermen close-upPhoto:
Image via Oddity Central

Stilt fishing is a tradition that only about 500 fishing families in the southwestern-most Sri Lankan district of Galle practice, especially around the towns of Kathaluwa and Ahangama. Though no one knows exactly how and when the tradition started, some of the older fishermen recall that stilt fishing was started after the Second World War by some inventive fishermen. Fishing at the time was done from rocks protruding above the ocean surface. As not enough of these rocks were available for all fishermen, some used iron poles left over from the war and planted them into the reef. But even these iron poles were scarce, so the fishermen soon discovered that even wooden poles were strong enough to be planted into the reef and thus, stilt fishing in today’s form was born.

A group of fishermen on their stilts about 20 m from the Sri Lankan coast:
Stilt fishermenPhoto:
Image via Oddity Central

To uninitiated westerners, one question will come up immediately: why on earth don’t they use nets? A valid question for non-fisher folk. But one has to know that when fishing with nets, the fish get disturbed and may disappear, not to return for years maybe, which means finding new fishing grounds further out. Stilt fishing is very unobtrusive and banks on the fact that the less the fish get disturbed, the longer they will stay. So the fishermen wait patiently on their stilts, holding the line with the hook but no bait, just attracting the fish by constant movement.

Stilt fishing may look romantic but it is hard work:
Stilt fishers at sunsetPhoto:
Image via Thomson

Being a stilt fisherman means that life revolves around the movement of the fish: they come at the beginning of the southwest monsoon and are active usually in the early morning and the late afternoon, so the fishermen go out to their stilts at least twice a day, sitting for hours at a time. The tradition is passed on from father to son and with it the particular skills of each fishing family.

Future stilt fishers at one of Galle’s many beaches?Boys in GallePhoto:
Image: edial68

Stilt fishing is a dying art that is threatened by the very fact that it is so unobtrusive and therefore extremely picturesque: tourists visiting the area get attracted by the sight of the stilt fishermen, stay close by, bathe in the sea, in short, do all the things the fishermen have been trying to avoid for decades – namely disturb the fish.

We first spotted this unusual fishing method on Oddity Central.

Source: 1, 2